Do You Remember Floppy Disks? Saving Business History from Technological Obsolescence

Friday, October 26, 2012 - 09:00

Do you remember 3 ½-inch floppy disks or better yet, the actual floppies that flopped, the 5 ¼-inch or 8-inch ones? What about other magnetic media like Zip and Jaz disks that were popular in the late 1990s? And, everyone knows what a CD is, right? After all, most of us still use CDs but fewer and fewer people are saving their files onto them now that removable media like thumb drives are so inexpensive and cloud storage options are popping up everywhere.

Maybe you still have data on a piece of obsolete media like the ones listed above, though. Do you have the hardware to access it? If so, will your computer read the disk? It may be physically damaged or formatted incorrectly. What if your computer can read the disk but cannot open the files because you don’t own a copy of the obsolete software they were created in? Even if you can find a copy of that software, you may not be able to install it on your computer if it isn’t compatible with the operating system.

As new technologies appear, older ones become obsolete. Since people are dependent on software and machines to access digital content, the growing obsolescence of electronic media and software is a huge obstacle to preserving the data that documents not only your own life history but history at large. Unlike paper records that can survive for thousands of years in the right environment untouched, digital records have an expiration date and require constant attention to preserve their content.

Now, imagine if you lost all your electronic records, all those pieces of information that help to define you. Not only you, but your family and friends would be affected by that loss of data. The importance of preserving your own born-digital content is clear but libraries and archives around the world are forced to address this problem on a much larger scale. At Hagley Museum and Library, many of our collections span the last three decades, years that saw a rapid increase in computer usage and recently, a gradual shift to a paperless office environment. Our collections also include the records of companies still in operation. In order to provide an accurate and comprehensive history of American enterprise, Hagley is dedicated to actively collecting documents of research value in digital format. This means we are now faced with the challenge of preserving those records so they are accessible to researchers today and far into the future.

The Digital Collections Department at Hagley is addressing this challenge by building a digital preservation program focused on safeguarding electronic records of enduring value. Digital preservation is an ongoing, multi-step process that offers a solution for ensuring continued access to born-digital content. Although digital preservation is still a somewhat new and developing field, guidelines that are generally accepted in the professional archival community, do exist. For example, upon file transfer, archivists should record technical and descriptive information to provide context and ensure continued integrity of the data. After running a virus scan, several copies are created and stored in different locations to reduce the risk of corruption. It is also important to restrict access to files to minimize the chance of a privacy or security breach. Once they are processed and open for research, access copies will be created for that purpose. Migrating obsolete file formats to current, more accessible formats is another key part of most digital preservation programs.

Unfortunately, most small to midsize archival repositories like Hagley don’t have the budget, staff time, or storage space to address the challenge of safeguarding their digital-born content. They are able to incorporate a few digital preservation strategies but ongoing maintenance consumes their resources. As a result, they are in dire need of finding secure and affordable solutions. Fortunately, new products are becoming available for repositories that do not possess the resources to build and sustain their own custom, in-house system.

Hagley recently selected one of these products, Preservica, a cloud-based service offered by Tessella, to manage our born-digital records. Preservica offers a secure, affordable, and extensible solution for libraries and archives of all sizes. Being a production-ready, out-of-the-box system with a user-friendly design and low learning curve, Preservica is particularly ideal for small to midsize repositories like Hagley. Preservica safeguards Hagley’s born-digital records by storing numerous copies in a highly secure environment where they are routinely checked for corruption or decay, virtually eliminating data loss. It includes a comprehensive, routinely updated suite of migration tools to convert obsolete file formats to current, more accessible ones. It could be used as an access tool for researchers since it offers full-text search and browse functions. Preservica also makes it convenient to manage our born-digital content remotely via a web-based interface.

Preservica is built on Tessella’s Safety Deposit Box (SDB) platform, which was originally implemented by the UK National Archives in 2003 and is now used by some of the world’s leading archives and libraries such as the National Library of Australia, Swiss Federal Archives, and FamilySearch International. SDB has primarily been used by European repositories but interest in Preservica is growing since the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives and the Archives of Michigan also adopted Preservica as their digital preservation system.

By setting up a digital preservation infrastructure here at Hagley, we can provide support for the active collecting of electronic records documenting American enterprise. We will move into the twenty-first century as a leading library and archive by ensuring continued access to digital materials and providing researchers with a more comprehensive view of business history, something that paper records alone cannot provide. In turn, Hagley has the unique opportunity to be a leader for other independent research libraries collecting born-digital records.

Abby Adams is Assistant Curator of Digital Collections at Hagley Museum and Library